Part 1: Chat Rooms
Not to be confused with Instant Messaging (explained in Part 2), chat rooms are basically windows where there are anywhere from 2 to hundreds of people connected through the internet able to send messages to everyone else in the room simultaneously. Chat rooms are very common in today's internet-savvy youth. I divide this section into Age Groups, because for different ages there will be different needs concerning chat rooms.
Age Group: 9 and under
Your child probably shouldn't be in chat rooms.
Age Group: 10-11
At this age, your child probably just wants to talk with a few friends from school if anything. It can be very fun to chat with friends in a private online chat room. At this age especially, the golden rule is: make sure you know exactly WHO you're chatting with in real life. Either call them up on the phone beforehand to make sure that their "handle" (i.e. their name in the chat room) is who they say they are.
I highly discourage you from allowing your children into a public chat room, with a few exceptions. The primary reasons are inappropriate language and sexual references. Since anyone can say just about anything in there, it's very likely that your child will see something inappropriate for their age group.
There are some online games like Club Penguin which are designed for children of this age. It is one of the few exceptions for public chat rooms. If your child does play this game, make sure you make it perfectly clear to them that they are not to give out any personal information to anyone. Also, as always, make sure the computer is in a public room where you can monitor it periodically. The game comes with a language filter to stop inappropriate comments.
Age Group: 12-14
This is the age group you REALLY have to worry about. By 12-14 your child is likely pretty internet-savvy. Girl's wants probably won't change much. They'll still want to chat with friends in chat rooms, although more and more they'll start to want to join Facebook and MySpace (more on that later). Make sure that you instill in them the knowledge that there are dangerous people out there, and that if they're chatting with someone they don't know personally, to give out no personal information.
It's boys, however, that become more problematic, and there is one big culprit: MMORPG. Odd sounding isn't it? It stands for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. Perhaps you've heard of World of Warcraft, Everquest, or City of Heroes just to name a few. At this age, some boys want to play these games.
To put it simply, these games are basically just like a regular computer game that most boys are interested in, where your child goes through a dungeon in an attempt to accomplish a task or to beat up the evil skeletons. The big difference, however, is that these are done online. With thousands or possibly millions of other players from across the world also playing the game at the same time, and talking in various chat rooms while playing.
While your child may be interested in these because their friend also plays and they want to do online adventures together, it also opens up some dangers of unknown people chatting with your child. Banning your child outright from playing these games is certainly a possibility, but they will certainly be unhappy with such a decision, with the classic "but Joe's mom lets HIM play World of Warcraft!!".
Generally, MMORPG's are not grounds for child predators. Most of them have a monthly fee, which is a big deterrent. A bigger worry is profanity and sexual references, but many games today have language filters which should stop that (note that you may need to turn on the language filters yourself). Also, the purpose of being in an MMORPG isn't just to chat, like being in a chat room, but to do "quests" with friends, where chatting is just for saying "Watch out for the skeleton!!" or "How much gold do you want for your sword?" rather then anything personal.
The best advice I can give you is if you are going to let them play these games, make the computer that has this game is a public computer in the main room. Also, take your child aside and explain clearly what you should and should not do when chatting.
You should also limit the amount of time per day that your child plays these games. They can be extremely addictive.
Age Group: 15-17
Chat rooms are even less commonly used, with Facebook and MySpace taking over their chatting needs. The scary part about this age is that many children are computer-savvy enough to do what they want and cover their tracks. Like I explained earlier with the comparison to drugs, if you've spoken about internet safety from the beginning with your child, and helped guide them to a safe internet experience, they'll be far more likely to make the right decisions.